US Public Not Convinced that Trump's Policies Will Make America Safer

September 11, 2017

By: Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy; Karl Friedhoff, Fellow, Public Opinion and Asia Policy


In his inaugural speech, President Trump promised to "unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth." But his administration has yet to release a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. The president has tinkered around the edges, with unsuccessful attempts to implement a travel ban from six countries in the Middle East and has continued the Obama administration's blend of airstrikes, Special Forces raids, and military training of the Iraqi army.

The 2017 Chicago Council Survey finds that majorities of Americans continue to think that international terrorism is the most critical threat to the United States (along with North Korea), and majorities continue to support US airstrikes, though not ground troops, to combat violent Islamic extremists. But the overall public is not convinced that the Trump administration's policies will make the United States safer from terrorism. Other polls show that majorities oppose the travel ban and more Americans think home-grown terrorism is a greater danger than terrorists from abroad infiltrating the United States.

Public Opinion Divides Three Ways on Impact of Trump's Policies

Thus far, public assessments of the new administration's approach to foreign policy are mixed. About a third each say that the current administration’s approach to international affairs will make the United States safer from terrorism (32%), less safe from terrorism (35%), or make no difference (30%).

Partisan differences on this question are stark. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Republicans think that the Trump administration’s approach will make the United States safer versus just 13 percent of Democrats. Just one in ten (10%) Republicans believe Trump’s approach will make the US less safe while 57 percent of Democrats think so. Like the overall public, Independents are evenly divided.

International Terrorism A Top Threat Facing the Country

In the past year, there have been highly visible terrorist attacks in Barcelona, London, Manchester, Paris, Brussels, Stockholm, Istanbul, and many other cities around the globe. While Americans divide on the security impacts of the Trump administration's policies, they are united in their sense of threat from terrorism. Three in four Americans (75%)—and majorities across all political affiliations—continue see terrorism as a critical threat to the United States, unchanged from 2016. This places it among the top threats facing the country, along with North Korea’s nuclear program (75%).

Perhaps the most iconic symbol of terrorism right now is the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and Americans express similar threat levels toward ISIS as to international terrorism. An April 2017 Marist poll found that 70 percent of Americans described ISIS as a major threat to the security of the United States (70%). And a January 2017 CNN survey found that three in four Americans think there are terrorists associated with the Islamic State who currently have the resources to launch a major terrorist attack against the United States at any time (73%). In the 2015 Chicago Council Survey, 72 percent said that the possibility of violent Islamic extremist groups carrying out a major terrorist attack in the United States was a critical threat.

Support for Using US Forces in Fight against Islamic Extremists

 Islamic State militants have lost control of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq, and are currently in a battle for Raqqa, Syria. The 2017 Chicago Council Survey finds that a clear majority of the American public (63%) favors the use of US forces to fight violent Islamic extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, up slightly from 2015 (57%).

Asked about other potential actions the United States could take in Syria,[1] a majority of Americans say they would favor US airstrikes against violent Islamic extremist groups there (68%). Four in ten would support sending US combat troops to fight Islamic extremists in Syria (41%).

Of course, the situation in Syria is more complex than just a terrorism issue, and the US public is more hesitant about getting involved in the internal Syrian political struggle. Only 45 percent would support US airstrikes against the Assad regime, and just 28 percent would support sending US troops to remove Assad from power. Only one quarter of Americans would favor helping to negotiate a peace agreement that would keep Assad in power (25%). But a clear majority would support helping to negotiate an agreement with a Syrian leader other than Assad (70%).

Majorities Oppose Travel Ban but Also Oppose Accepting Refugees

Similar to previous Chicago Council Surveys, four in ten Americans (43%) say they would support accepting Syrian refugees into the United States, with large differences between Democrats (64%) and Republicans (17%). But this does not mean the public overall supports President Trump's attempts to impose travel restrictions on immigrants from the Middle East. A September 2016 Monmouth University survey found that 74 percent of Americans opposed "banning all Muslims from entering the United States". A smaller majority opposed a "blanket ban on the immigration of any person who lives in a country with a history of terrorism against the west" (60% vs. 32% support).

A former senior counterterrorism official told the New Yorker magazine that President Trump's immediate call for the travel ban could arguably do more to "inspire further acts of homegrown terrorism than it is to prevent terrorists from entering the country and perpetrating terrorist acts."[2] In fact, homegrown terrorism or lone wolf attacks seem to be more of a concern to everyday Americans. The Monmouth survey found that by a five to three margin, more Americans believe that US citizens who become radicalized (53%) are a bigger threat of future attacks than terrorists from overseas who infiltrate the United States (32%; 12% both are equally threatening).


The analysis in this report is based on data from the 2017 Chicago Council Survey of the American public on foreign policy. The 2017 Chicago Council Survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, nationwide online research panel between June 27 and July 19, 2017 among a weighted national probability sample of 2,020 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error is ±2.4 percentage points.

The 2017 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Korea Foundation, and the personal support of Lester Crown and the Crown family.

About the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. Ranked No. 1 Think Tank to Watch worldwide, the Council on Global Affairs is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business and governments engage the world. Learn more at and follow @ChicagoCouncil.

[1] These options were only asked about potential actions that could be taken in Syria. The preceding question was in a separate battery and identified the violent Islamic extremist groups being located in both Iraq and Syria.

[2] David Rhode, “What Donald Trump Can Do To Help Stop Terrorism: Talk Less,” New Yorker, June 4, 2017.


US Public Not Convinced that Trump's Policies Will Make America Safer

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